November Issue 2015
Towards the end of last month, it began to become increasingly clear that there is more than one dimension to the Russian strategy in Syria. A robust, and largely unexpected, military intervention on the side of the beleaguered Assad regime has been accompanied by a powerful diplomatic initiative involving direct talks with representatives of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two regional powers most vehemently opposed to Russia’s presence and least flexible about a role for Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s short-term future.
The talks in Vienna between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and their counterparts from Riyadh and Istanbul may not have achieved a breakthrough, but they weren’t a dead end either. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has been on the phone not just to King Salman and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he has also been having conversations with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
All of this suggests that Moscow is serious about a negotiated solution to a crisis that has grown progressively more complex since it erupted in 2011, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths — mostly, although by no means exclusively, at the hands of Assad’s forces — and millions of displaced people, a growing proportion of whom are now desperate to find asylum in Europe.
The biggest beneficiary of the chaos in Syria and neighbouring Iraq has been Daesh or Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS and ISIL), which has established a so-called caliphate across vast swathes of both countries. A little more than a year ago, the US and its allies embarked on a campaign of airstrikes in Iraq, subsequently extended to Syria, in a purported effort to degrade the entity. This appears to have succeeded in curbing to a considerable extent the advance of IS, but it remains stubbornly entrenched in power across the territory it has conquered, from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to its ostensible ‘capital’ in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
It seemed obvious from the outset of the renewed western military action that airstrikes on their own could not possibly suffice to serve the intended purpose. In Iraq, Shia militias assisted or guided by the Iranians achieved some, but not very many, goals on the ground — partly because the largely Sunni populations of the IS-afflicted areas all too often see little advantage in backing what they perceive as simply a different variety of oppressors.
In Syria, even that element was conspicuous by its absence. Having declared at the outset of the rebellion against him that Assad must go, the West ruled out cooperation with his regime even in tackling a common foe, although there is bound to have been some degree of coordination behind the scenes. Besides, at least some of the western allies — notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states — have consistently appeared to be more intent on ousting Assad than on defeating IS. In order to achieve this end, at least some of them have been supporting jihadist elements among the non-IS anti-Assad belligerents, including the Al Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra.
Russia has been less indiscriminate in picking its targets. In fact, there have been complaints that its attacks have been focused largely on non-IS terrain, often hitting areas held by supposedly moderate rebels, in some cases the recipients of CIA largesse and material. Questioned on this matter, Lavrov has responded that terrorism is not restricted to IS.
There remains a chorus of opinion that claims that if the US and its allies had intervened in Syria as soon as the rebellion against Assad took shape more than four years ago, regime change could have been accomplished without allowing jihadist forces to establish themselves. This facetious argument can be countered by posing the question: Which particular interventionist template should have been followed? Libya, where Nato stepped in to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and which is today an anarchic state where jihadists have the upper hand? Iraq, where the prospect of a three-way divide remains a likely outcome amid ceaseless warfare? Or Afghanistan, where the Taliban are once more scoring goals after 14 years of relentless conflict, and a US military withdrawal has been put on hold?
It has been suggested that US President Barack Obama has agreed to a continued American military presence in Afghanistan partly out of the fear that Russia might step in, given that its near abroad — the former Soviet Central Asian republics, mostly ruled by deplorable but doggedly anti-Islamist autocrats — remains vulnerable to a jihadist influx in terms of ideology as well as personnel.
It is hard to believe that Russia would seriously consider intervening in Afghanistan again in the manner and on a scale reminiscent of its role in Afghanistan, which helped to pave the way for the downfall of the Soviet Union — and, what’s more, provided conditions for the nurture of international jihadism under the aegis of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
What nonetheless remains true is that Islamist tendencies, which since then have evolved into a considerably more toxic compound, do indeed pose a challenge on the southern flanks of the former Soviet Union, as well as within Russia, with its substantial Muslim population, which is largely Sunni in composition. Putin has cited the claim that several thousand recruits from former Soviet territories have joined IS in Syria as a key reason for Russian military action there.
Whatever the validity of that argument, which to some extent echoes western justifications for the “war on terror,” there are a number of other, more substantial reasons for Russia’s uncharacteristic foray into the Middle East. The urge to preserve at least one ally in the region is clearly a factor, not least because Syria hosts a Russian naval base. Possibly the largest incentive, however, lay in re-establishing Russia as a leading player on the world stage following the humiliation of western sanctions after the conquest of the Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Perceived American weakness in the region, following its monumental follies in Iraq and Libya, and failure in pursuing a negotiated settlement on the Palestinian-Israeli front in the face of Likudite obduracy, obviously made it easier for Moscow to step in where Washington was reluctant to tread. Rivals and foes tend to cite Obama’s hesitation in signing up to more large-scale wars as a deplorable unwillingness to project American power and leadership. In fact, that’s one of the least offensive aspects of his presidency — although it must be viewed in the context of American military bases in scores of countries around the world, frequent deployment of special forces, and the dogged pursuit of remote-controlled warfare via drones, the scale of whose immorality has lately been underscored by independent assessments suggesting that civilian killings are far more common than the US military would care to admit.
It does not follow, of course, that Russian imitation of what had become an American habit will somehow lead to less unpleasant consequences. Which is precisely why the parallel diplomatic track is vitally important. The chances of producing a solution to which all parties other than IS might agree remain incredibly remote. But the fact that Russia seems keen to engage in a conversation with potential adversaries diminishes the risk of accidental military clashes sparking off a conflagration that could spiral out of control.
At the same time, it’s too soon to completely rule out the threat of a wider and potentially much deadlier conflict emanating from the scarred battlefields of Syria. At the very beginning of Putin’s gambit, Turkey reacted with outrage when a couple of Russian jets violated its airspace. The Russians put it down to a navigational error, but Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg channeled his disbelief in crudely belligerent language. While Nato would be unlikely to take any action without explicit American approval, the US has been ambivalent in its reaction to Russian military action — saying it’s fine as long as only IS is targeted, but that has not been the case — an accidental clash in the skies could lead to retaliation. The possible consequences of that are too awful to contemplate.
The complexity of allegiances on the ground, meanwhile, complicates the prospects of a negotiated settlement. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Assad regime, and Iraq (which is beholden to Iran and has itself requested Russian assistance) has no problems with it. Egypt has been largely quiet on the matter, but prefers Assad to any Islamist alternative. The Israeli establishment probably feels the same way, notwithstanding its hostility to Damascus. The US and other western powers are committed to Assad’s overthrow, but recognise IS as a greater threat, and would be inclined to accede to the prospect of Assad staying on temporarily provided there is the prospect of regime change within the foreseeable future.
The Turks, the Saudis and the latter’s Gulf acolytes have thus far been unbending on the demand that Assad must go. They seem unperturbed by the prospect of an Islamist regime in his stead. They have certainly been arming some Islamist factions, including al-Nusra (which is being targeted by both the Russians and the Americans) and have lately stepped up their assistance. They detest the idea of Iranian influence, with elements of the Saudi media describing it in terms of “Persian-occupied Arab lands.”
Turkey is also profoundly suspicious of the Kurds, who in both Iraq and Syria have emerged as the most effective indigenous anti-IS force. The US and Israel (the latter favours a Kurdish homeland while doggedly denying one to Palestinians) gaze down fondly on the Kurds, who have also been at the receiving end of Russian overtures. So, for that matter, has the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supposedly moderate (although not all its components fit that description) and vehemently opposed to Assad as well as IS. The Russians have offered to cooperate with the FSA in combating IS and have asked it to reveal its locations. The FSA, understandably, has been reluctant to do so. On the other hand, the next time Russia is accused of attacking supposedly moderate rebels, it can claim lack of information as an excuse.
On the face of it, the fraught circumstances on the ground, abounding in cross-purposes and mutual suspicions, don’t seem particularly conducive to meaningful negotiations. But, realistically, there is no alternative other than open-ended warfare, which can exacerbate Syria’s agony but is hardly likely to produce any kind of solution.
Former US president, Jimmy Carter, commented late last month that the best hope lay in a five-power agreement between Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia: given a common purpose, they could persuade their various allies to sign on, and then concentrate on getting rid of IS.
Easier said than done? Yes, of course. But it’s not completely unviable, given that talks between four of these powers have already taken place, and it just might prove possible to persuade Saudi Arabia to accept Iran as a participant (and while they are at it, perhaps an agreement could also be reached on ceasing the disgraceful and utterly meaningless destruction of Yemen). It might be a long shot, but what exactly would be a better bet?
In the eyes of some observers, the Middle East could be undergoing a restructure as profound as that which followed the First World War nearly a century ago. Given the tumult of this decade, that’s not such an outlandish proposition, and it could be quite a while before the pieces fall into place. But it must devoutly be wished that the changes can be accomplished without triggering off a third world war.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.